As the debate around the COP21 negotiations intensifies, India has emerged as a key player. India is currently the third largest carbon-emitter in the world, after China and the United States. And this, when a quarter of the country’s population still does not have electricity. The whole world (except, perhaps, the Republican party) has recognized climate change as a major threat now. Since 2000, the European Union and America have decreased their combined annual annual output by 1.2 billion tons. But India and China have increased theirs by 8.1 billion tons .

In recent years, however, China has started to take steps to limit its carbon footprint , and has begun to slow down the expansion of coal-based power. It is aggressively upgrading its power plants, and has pledged to reduce emissions from power plants by 60% by 2020. This is a massive step forward. But the path for India is a little more complicated.

While the country has made major commitments to renewable energy, it is the only major carbon emitter that will see a significant increase in emissions over the next 15 years. Under its current proposal, the country will be on pace to triple its carbon emissions by 2030 , and that if it receives aid from western countries to help subsidize its solar, wind, and nuclear power plants.

India’s argument is that it needs cheap power in order to improve the standard of living of its citizens, which are currently amongst the poorest in the region. India’s GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity, is currently similar to that of Congo, Nigeria, and Vietnam. It cannot afford to spend money on expensive electricity when it still has mouths to feed and children to send to school. And at the same time, it cannot deprive its people of electricity if it wishes to improve their standard of living.

This is a compelling narrative. India’s emissions, on a per capita basis are the lowest amongst all major emitters. At the same time, the energy intensity of its economy is on par with countries like the United States.

An increase in India’s carbon emissions is inevitable if most of its citizens start to climb out of poverty - which is something that we all hope for. Our model shows that, with business as usual, if the average Indian could buy as much as the average Chinese could, (an increase in GDP/capita from $5,400/year to $12,100/year), she will still end up emitting slightly less carbon as the average Mexican currently does (from 1.8 tons/year to 3.22 tons/year).

CO2 emissions of a country increase as its gets richer

Which doesn’t sound so bad, until one realizes that the carbon footprint of that would be the equivalent of adding another Russia to the planet.

This is a hairy challenge. The Indian government wishes to get people out of poverty, but also wants to minimize its carbon footprint as much as possible. How does it do that?

Apart from the usual prescriptions (investment for wind and solar), there are 3 measures which can be extremely impactful, but have not been discussed much.

1. Reduce transmission and distribution losses in the country. India currently loses more than a fifth of the electricity that it generates due to the way it's power lines are set up. Given that power generation accounts for almost half of India's carbon emissions, addressing this problem would both help the government save money and reduce its carbon footprint by up to 10%.

2. Push for stronger vehicle emission standards. As anyone who as been on an Indian highway can testify, . While emissions from vehicles are currently a relatively small source of carbon emissions at 10%, they are bound to increase as the country gets richer. Improving emission standards to European levels could help the country reduce emissions by up to 5% if emissions form vehicles as a proportion of all emissions reach EU/US levels.

3. Invest in cleaner coal-power plants. The benefits of this are difficult to quantify, but it might have the most impact. China's year-on-year emissions from January to April this year dropped for the first time , as China has moved to cleaner and more efficient coal and closed inefficient plants. A similar move might do wonders for India.

It is clear, though, that India cannot afford to pursue either environment reforms or economic growth at the expense of the other. It is far too vulnerable to both poverty and climate change to take that risk. Balancing the two has been a priority of recent Indian governments, and one would hope that policy changes to this affect - in addition to the recent push towards renewable energy - would be announced soon.